Secret in Their Eyes is a well-acted and politically-charged drama/thriller with ambitions that exceed its grasp.
In Secret in Their Eyes, the FBI agent Raymond "Ray" Caston (Chiwetel Ejiofor), investigator Jessica "Jess" Cobb (Julia Roberts), and deputy DA Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman) are working for a Los Angeles based counter-terroism task force, one year after 9/11. However, everything changes when the squad finds a murder victim near an L.A. mosque they've kept under surveillance - and it turns out the victim is none other than Jess's daughter, Carolyn (Zoe Graham). A potential suspect is identified, but the purported killer - Mazin, nicknamed "Pac-Man" (Joe Cole) - ultimately walks due to a lack of evidence against him, only to vanish thereafter.
Thirteen years later, Ray - having resigned from his old job long ago - reunites with Jess and Claire, telling them he has finally identified a man who he is certain is the older Mazin, going under a different name. However, in order to bring Jess justice at last (and in the process, bring himself peace of mind), Ray must not only track down and find Mazin, but also seek out the evidence necessary to convict him for the heinous crime that he committed.
Secret in Their Eyes is an Americanized remake of the Oscar-winning 2009 Argentine film The Secret in Their Eyes - itself based on Eduardo Sacheri's novel "The Question in Their Eyes" - that looks at issues of morality and ethics in a post-9/11 U.S., similar to how its predecessor examines related issues in the aftermath of Argentina's Dirty Wars from the 1970s. Writer/director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach) thus aims to offer a larger political commentary here, through the lens of a more intimate story about three people who (in different ways) are left permanently damaged by a traumatic event. The resulting film has its strengths, yet Secret in Their Eyes makes for an uneven viewing experience overall.
The first two-thirds of Ray's Secret in Their Eyes script jumps back and forth between the years 2002 and 2015; this makes for an effective approach to character development, by juxtaposing the older and younger versions of the film's leads. However, those positive effects are undone by a central narrative thread that hits the expected beats of the procedural genre in a formulaic manner, and a romantic subplot revolving around Ray and Claire that rings hollow, despite Ejiofor and Kidman's best efforts to sell the love story through their performances. The twists and turns in Secret in Their Eyes' third act are thus built on a flimsy foundation and come off more as gimmicky, rather than plot developments that pack a strong emotional punch (and enhance the film's over-arching themes at the same time).
Secret in Their Eyes works best during the slow-burn dramatic scenes that are driven by tension, whereas its thriller sequences are competent, but otherwise underwhelming. Ray and cinematographer Daniel Moder (The Normal Heart) create a fitting Noir mood thoughout the film, portraying Los Angeles as a city that varies from welcoming to ominous - sometime that befits the story, accordingly. The film also succeeds at building up suspense though stylistic flourishes (the most noteworthy occasion being an aerial shot that sets up an action scene in a baseball stadium) - but once the action gets underway, Secret in Their Eyes becomes conventional (read: uninteresting) in its execution.
Editor Jim Page (Disturbia, No Good Deed) is likewise most successful when cutting between the past and present in the film to create a sense of mystery and concern; when people are chasing down other people on foot, though, Secret in Their Eyes feels more like a glorified Law & Order episode. It doesn't help that the film's supporting characters - Ray's semi-comical sidekick Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris), the morally-questionable and generally smarmy agent Reginald "Reg" Siefert (Michael Kelly), and the by-the-book district attorney Martin Morales (Alfred Molina) - all feel like players lifted right out of a crime procedural TV series, as those descriptions indicate. Secret in Their Eyes is certainly elevated by having well-renowned character actors filling out its cast, but even they can only do so much to make their roles feel like more than two-dimensional archetypes.
Ejiofor and Roberts do the bulk of heavy-lifting in Secret in Their Eyes, delivering strong performances (ones deserving of a better movie) that require them to be vulnerable, relatable, and/or even unstable, when necessary. Kidman does fine work as the most in-control of the movie's three leads, though she and Ejifor don't have enough screen chemistry in their roles to make the romance between them fly. In fact, Secret in Their Eyes tends to be much stronger when focusing on the friendship between Ray and Jess, as opposed to the Ray/Claire dynamic. Unfortunately, the film devotes nearly the same amount of time to exploring both of these relationships, to its detriment.
Secret in Their Eyes is a well-acted and politically-charged drama/thriller with ambitions that exceed its grasp, put simply. The film has a number of interesting elements, yet the individual parts don't add up to an equally compelling whole. Those in the mood for a decent adult dramatic thriller might want to check out Secret in Their Eyes at some point - but seeing as awards season releases are now storming into theaters, there are similar yet better options to choose from out there.
Secret in Their Eyes is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 111 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing violent content, language and some sexual references.
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